[Paleopsych] NYT: Hold the Limo: The Prom's Canceled as Decadent
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Mon Dec 12 01:36:38 UTC 2005
Hold the Limo: The Prom's Canceled as Decadent
[More of the reaction to the excesses of the age. I most definitely did not
go to any prom at Fountain Valley School, an all-male (at the time)
boarding school outside Colorado Springs. I don't even remember if their was
a prom, though Sarah recalls Dick going to one five years later. I thought
girls were as silly as my mother and sister and did not want to have
anything to do with them. (My opinions about my mother and sister have
certainly changed since then! And I think they have, too.)
[I took Nancy Johnson to a dance in the eighth grade and took another at
Fountain Valley School in the ninth grade, but Steve Reierstad took her away
from me and left me alone for the rest of the evening. (He was later
expelled from the school, I think for smoking, but he must really have
wanted to get kicked out. He was a bully. When a roommate, Vance Thompson,
left (voluntarily), I had a room all to myself. For reasons I don't recall,
if I were to take a roommate (Ned Fetcher), Steve's rooming arrangements
could be changed so he could have a roommate more to his liking. He promised
to stop bullying if I agreed. I did, but the bullying resumed shortly
thereafter. A lesson learned!
[Ned asked me whether I believed in God. Yes. Why? I couldn't answer and so
dropped the belief until I could come up with some good reasons. He started
a lifelong fascination with religion, but 51 years later, I still haven't
come up with good reasons to believe in a Stone Age creator. I met up with
him at my 25th reunion but haven't been able to reestablish contact with him
by e-mail. Maybe I gave up too many other beliefs, some of which he
[Anyhow, my parents housed some visiting foreign students for a couple of
nights, in the Summer of 1961. I had to take the girl to a dance. My friend,
Roy Dent, was also there. My activity for the evening was to drink a Coke
and talk to Roy about the fourth dimension. No dancing at all, and the girl
left to dance with others. She had a good time, too.
[In college, I thought I really ought to be dating girls--UVa's
undergraduate Arts and Sciences will still all boys--and in my final year
signed up with Operation Match, one of the first computerized dating
services. I found a girl closely matched: Episcopalian background,
physicians as father, same sized city,.... It turned out we have NOTHING in
[I stayed on at UVa, switching from math to economics in graduate school. I
twice dated Sally Ann Moyer (Mary Washington College), a staunch Republican
and Nixonite. Now this was just too much! I could see Nixon over
what's-his-name but being actually enthusiastic about Nixon? I was willing
to go for a third date, but she wasn't interested. Then five dates with
Gladys Swanson, a sweet girl at the same college. She felt warmly about me,
but our IQ levels were just too far apart. I was falling in love with her
too, but I got the better of myself before I wound up in a marriage that
would have been been okay, indeed pleasant, but not much more than that.
[Now to my 13th date. (I missed one somewhere.) Peter Graham, a friend of
mine at UVa, went to Mary Washington College and asked, "Who would like to
date a mathematical genius?" One Sarah Banks answered she would, and so
Peter told me I had a date, not just for an evening, but for an entire "big"
weekend, from Friday at 6:00 till Sunday about the same time. My date would
arrive by bus from Fredericksburg to the Rotunda. I had not particularly
wanted a date, but I went ahead anyhow. I fired off Miss Banks a letter,
telling me about myself and inviting her to do the same. Here's what
appeared in my mail, on 1967 April 14, two days before I was actually to
Tho' an exhaustive description is
requested, physical I presume, let me say
only that I probably won't come as a shock,
being in appearance just another Mary
Washington lady, prudish of background and
foul of mind. Please do find enclosed,
however, a piece of said mind: cluttered,
eclectic, and probably repressed, the obvious
result of spending part of my childhood in
English fog, listening to the BBC.
Despite my gothic tendencies, I'm really
harmless. The impression I give has been
compared to a white rabbit in a daisy field,
an owl in a dusty attic, and a mouse in a
haunted haystack. This is not to imply that I
am either cute or sweet, & certainly not shy.
By life style, I am a hopeless, scatter-
footed dabbler, constantly acquiring new
weaknesses. I will stick my nose into
anything, particularly if I know little or
nothing about it (like economics, likewise
Let me guess at your artistic....
tendencies? While sleuthing on my own, you
were described to me as "a one-man happening.
*all* the time." Sounds like a man with a
taste for the *High Camp*. And if you
believe, with me & Marshall MacLuhan, that
Today, *Art* is anything is anything you can
get away with, the Bless Pete! we may yet do
well by each other. My ideal weekend is full
of noise, elbow warfare, & good conversation.
Hope you weren't expecting a letter that
comes to the point. Actually, I wouldn't
dream of giving you fair warning. One helpful
hint: *Never* take me seriously.
[What is this wondrous creature! I read and reread the letter and was it was
love before the first sight. I told her I'd meet her carrying a copy of
Mahler's Second Symphony. I just assumed she'd know who Mahler was, though I
doubt any of my previous dates did! She was carrying a copy of a book on pop
art. Her first reaction to me and my black-framed glasses was "what has
Peter gotten me into?". We walked across the Lawn and down to my apartment
on Brandon Avenue, without thinking that this was in complete violation of
UVa rules, for which I could be expelled. On the way in, I showed her the
bumper sticker of my Austin Healey, which read "Bumper Sticker." She
exclaimed that she didn't need to explain what pop art was to me.
[We talked and talked and talked. I took her to an Escher exhibit at the
Alderman Library and thence to the stacks, where I delightedly showed her a
copy of a religious book that featured drawings of the U.S. Presidents and
which of the Lost Tribes of Israel they came from. We went up and down a
winding staircase, going down a number of half-stories, back up a smaller
number, and arriving at the same place! I did eventually figure out what had
happened but have not, to this day, explained how I can do much the same
thing in Old Cabell Hall. She spent the night, with some other Mary
Washington girls, at the house Peter and some other boys had rented. UVa had
a policy that girls could not enter boys' premises and certainly not spend
the night there. There were a number of little old ladies who rented out
rooms for $5 for the night to just such girls. Why Peter's house qualified,
I don't know. Maybe it didn't, but Mary Washington College apparently did
not check too closely about this matter.
[At the end of a "big" weekend of talking, I simply informed Miss Banks that
I'd be seeing her the following weekend, which I did. The following weekend,
too, and the weekend after that, the weekend after that, until the end of
the semester. (It took me until the second date to realize I wanted to spend
the rest of my life with this creature.) Once or twice, she said she had
gotten too far behind in her work but that I could come visit her but I'd
have to wait till late in the evening before she was ready. I wound up
spending the night in a room in a little old lady's house up in
Fredericksburg myself, there being no girls renting houses where the boys
[I had met her grandmother at her farm near Warrenton. Though intending to
leave her there, happily, my Healey broke down (it really did, though her
grandmother was highly suspicious) and I had to spend the night there. We
discreetly slept in separate rooms. I met her parents in Alexandria also.
Miss Banks went home but I managed to take the2 1/2 drive every weekend to
see her during the Summer.
[I drove her out to Colorado Springs to show her off to my parents. Dad
pronounced her to be one of the finest women he had ever met of any age. The
next Semester included weekly dates, until at last we got married between
semesters on 1968 February 2. It was at the grandmother's farm, which had
been in the family since about 1830 and where a great grandmother and father
has been married before. The ceremonies were conducted by a Unitarian
minister, who had allowed me to expunge all references to the supernatural.
I had verses read, though, from a family Bible, an old one before it got
1 To every thing there is a
season, and a time to every purpose
under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time
to die; a time to plant, and a time
to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to
heal; a time to break down, and a
time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to
laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to
5 A time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to
refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to
lose; a time to keep, and a time to
7 A time to rend, and a time to
sew; a time to keep silence, and a
time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to
hate; a time of war, and a time of
[Dad offered to pay for a honeymoon to one of those islands that has no
bookstores. I said I'd rather just have the friends who came to our wedding
come visit us in our new apartment. We are still suspended in that
magical moment between the wedding reception and the honeymoon, which has
yet to take place.
[And we haven't stopped talking.]
By PAUL VITELLO
Prom night, that all-American rite of passage that fell out of
favor during the anti-establishment 1960's and then made a comeback
in the conservative tilt of the Reagan era, probably always
inhabited terrain destined to become a battleground in the
so-called culture wars.
It is about social manners, class, gender roles; and to a more or
less open degree, it is about sex.
That may explain why recent decisions by two Roman Catholic high
school principals on Long Island to cancel proms for the class of
2006 - both citing exasperation with what the educators described
as a decadent "prom culture" - seem to have struck a chord well
beyond the worlds of Catholics, high schools or Long Island.
Newspaper editorial writers, social scientists and parents across
the country linked through Web sites have responded in the past two
months with what seems like a giant exhalation of relief, as if
someone had finally said what they had long feared to say.
"Strike up the orchestra for Brother Kenneth Hoagland, principal of
Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, N.Y.," read an Oct.
23 editorial in The Chicago Tribune. "Not because he has canceled
the Long Island school's spring prom but because in doing so he
provoked what should be local discussions nationwide about prom
night activities and about parents and educators who don't do their
Underlying the concern seems to be a widespread uncertainty about
the coming-of-age ritual embodied in the modern prom - the $500 to
$1,000 spent on dress, limo and parties before and after the actual
event. It has become not uncommon for parents to sign leases for
houses, where couples room together, for post-prom weekend events
or for parents to authorize boat excursions in which under-age
drinking is not just winked at but expected.
Trumping it all, of course, is the uncertainty about sex.
"Common parlance tells us that this is a time to lose one's
virginity," Brother Hoagland and other administrators of Kellenberg
High wrote in a letter to parents in March, warning them that the
prom might be canceled unless parents stopped financing what, in
effect, the school considered bacchanals. "It is a time of
heightened sexuality in a culture of anything goes," the letter
added. "The prom has become a sexual focal point. This is supposed
to be a dance, not a honeymoon."
Six months after the initial letter, administrators canceled the
prom by fiat, citing not just sex and alcohol use, but also what
they described as materialism run amok.
A month later, in November, administrators at another Roman
Catholic school on Long Island, Chaminade High School in Mineola,
followed suit, explaining that the prom was being canceled because
its decadence and "showcase of affluence" were "opposed to our
Both principals reported receiving letters of support and requests
for interviews from all over the world. British, Australian,
Japanese and Ukrainian newspapers, for instance, ran prominent
features about the principals' bold stand against American
Whether those "local discussions nationwide" urged by The Chicago
Tribune lead to a larger consensus about proms, or remain small
countercultural acts in what has become a $2.7 billion prom
industry, some observers viewed them as opening an interesting new
front in the continuing battle over American values.
"I think there is a general desire to bring religious values into
public life, and these actions against the prom seem like signs of
that," said John Farina, a researcher at Georgetown University who
studies the intersection of religion and culture. "To some extent,
it reflects the influence of John Paul II - his willingness to
confront and resist the dominant culture. As a teacher, I wish more
educators had that kind of backbone."
An opposing view was expressed by George M. Kapalka, a professor of
psychological counseling at Monmouth University in West Long
Resisting unacceptable behavior and banning it, he said, represent
two different spirits in education. "This is just another example
of the 'just say no' policy, which has failed miserably wherever
it's been applied," Professor Kapalka said. "It would be better to
start the conversation with kids about values earlier than to wait
until senior year and ban the prom."
Among disappointed students, there was a sense that the timing of
the ban was arbitrary.
"It was like a slap in the face," said Shane Abrams, a 17-year-old
Chaminade senior. "A lot of kids feel like: 'Why us? Why this
year?' Why didn't they ban the prom last year, or the year before?"
Countering the charges of prom extravagance, a number of students
pointed out that the school was spending about $20 million on an
athletic center, an expense they said was extravagant, also.
Chaminade's headmaster, the Rev. James Williams, said the decision
to cancel the senior prom this year was based on an accumulation of
evidence that "the modern culture of the prom has become toxic and
He added: "It's part of a larger issue. Why are sweet 16 parties
becoming more like weddings? Why are otherwise moderate kids
suddenly pressured to go wild on one night at the end of four years
of Chaminade education?
"We are saying we admit that this takes place, and we won't be part
of it anymore."
William J. Doherty, a professor of family studies at the University
of Minnesota and author of "Take Back Your Kids," a study about
overscheduled children, said in a phone interview that prom
excesses like those cited by Brother Hoagland and Father Williams
were typical of what he calls "consumer-driven parenting."
"We have parents heavily involved in orchestrating their children's
experience because of this notion that experiences can be
purchased," Dr. Doherty said. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, he
said, he knew of one mother who did not want her daughter to go on
a senior class trip to Cancun, but would not forbid it. "Her
comment was 'how sad' it would be if her daughter was the only one
at her lunch table to miss that experience.
"It's not that a whole generation of parents is crazy," Dr. Doherty
said. "It's that there is a subset of parents who are crazy - and
the rest don't want their kids to miss out."
Prom night may never replace abortion on the front line of the
culture wars, but in small increments, the issue of prom night does
seem to be forcing itself onto the agenda generally described as
Web sites ranging from those of the conservative Concerned Women
for America to the nonpartisan Berkeley Parents Network, to those
of various Islamic and Orthodox Jewish organizations, have in
recent years posted advice to parents about proms, most of it
In 2002, after several students who attended a junior prom were
hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, the administrators at Rye High
School in Westchester County began a dialogue with students and
parents about how to proceed. One option was to cancel the prom.
"But we came up with a compromise," said Jim Rooney, the principal.
Since 2003, Rye students attending the prom have to report to
school that evening with at least one parent. The parent must sign
a consent form and leave a phone number where he or she can be
reached. All students then travel on a coach bus, provided by the
school, to and from the prom - no limos, no sneaking drinks.
"The before-prom gathering has become a nice tradition," Mr. Rooney
said. "The parents and kids gather in our courtyard for pictures,
and I don't think the kids would give that up for anything, at this
On the other hand, he admitted, the school has no control over what
happens after the prom bus drops seniors off back at the school.
After-prom parties happen. It is almost assumed that students will
seek memorable experiences according to their own standards.
"A lot of them go off to these Chelsea bars," Mr. Rooney said. "I
understand that most of those places are quite porous."
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